The elusive zone

About six years ago I was hawking my bad student writing around various outlets and the Guardian gave me 300 words on the topic of “How to survive an all-nighter.” I stumbled across it the other day and couldn’t resist re-reading my own twee advice, including dated references to disconnecting the “ethernet cable” and the agonising kicker line, “Turn that all-nighter into an all-righter.”

That aside, I’ve long been curious about working habits and effectiveness — mainly because my own are so variable. I called it the “elusive zone” in the Guardian blog and, in my experience, it really is.

Even in jobs widely understood to be “brainy” there is work that will easily survive interruption by email, whatsapp and twitter. And in fact I suspect most of us have successfully re-wired our brains to categorise and split up our “work” into 5 or 10 minute chunks. So I’m not referring to that.

Spontaneous flow” (TW: TED talk) is one academic description of what I mean. It is the mental state of being engaged by one thing only to the exclusion of everything else, including an exact sense of time and place. The upshot is the gestation of original ideas or sheer speed of execution.

The tough question is whether the sacred cows of workplace culture — serendipity, connectivity, collaboration — inhibit or advantage deep, playful thinking. I don’t have the answer. My guess is that though the demise of the office cubicle is a good thing, so is the degree of solitude found in the late-night student essay crisis.

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